My Chinese teacher has quite a few American students, since she speaks English well and there are plenty of Americans here trying to improve their Mandarin. One of her recent ones sticks out, because he’s something of a rarity here in Shanghai – a black guy. If there’s one group of people that get stared at more than my kind of wide-eye, it’s black people.
There just aren’t many around, many Chinese people can probably claim to have never seen one, and Chinese people in general do love to stare at things they consider to be unusual. Children will point (or even cry) at the sight of a black guy, and there seems to be a fascination here about black people’s hair. While I was at EXPO last year (where there were plenty of black people around), I saw some old Chinese people touching a very bemused black guy’s hair and were completely amazed at how it felt. I asked him about it afterwards and he was as confused as I was, and added that they weren’t even the first people to do that today.
Anyway, this student was not only conscious of the attention he received while walking around the city, but was a little horrified because Chinese people kept talking about him using a racial slur – “nigger”. Are Chinese people so ignorant that they don’t realise that it’s a bad word? How come even the people that speak no English are still calling him a “nigger”?
As it turns out, they weren’t. At all.
In Mandarin, the words zhè gè (这个) nà gè (那个) mean “this one” and “that one”, respectively. The gè (个) part is a generic counter for nouns (for example, zhè gè rén (这个人) means “this person”, sān gè rén (三个人) means “three people”).
Chinese people do love to gossip, but they never talk about the person they’re gossiping about by name for fear they’ll overhear them, so they often refer to people as “this one” or “that one” when they’re bitching.
Chinese people also often use zhè gè and nà gè in a similar way as English speakers would use “um” or “err” – a word to use when you’re still forming a sentence in your head and you’re waiting for your brain to catch up with your mouth. Overhearing Mandarin while you walk down a street, you’re pretty likely to hear a zhè gè or nà gè somewhere along the way.
So, while Chinese people might have been talking about the poor guy, they weren’t calling him a “nigger” at all, they were either gossiping about him and referring to him as “that one” (nà gè), or they were just idly chatting.
Nà gè please.